What do you think of when you think of New Zealand? Sheep perhaps? – the country has 7 sheep for every human inhabitant. Hobbits maybe? – Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations have made the islands practically synonymous with Middle Earth. The Haka? – The Maori war dance is famous for striking terror in the hearts of opposing rugby teams. Country and Western singers? – Nah, not so much now you come to mention it. Tami Neilson is going to change that.

Neilson was born in Canada and grew up to perform in country group The Neilsons with her parents and brothers, gong out on tour to support Johnny Cash amongst others. After her parents retired, the band continued as a trio for a while before going their own ways; Tami moving to New Zealand and getting married.

Dynamite! is Tami’s third album and the one that will surely break her as a major talent. Her style veers from swampy rockabilly to pure country and she has been described as: “A red-hot honkytonker, somewhere between Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson with perhaps just a little bit of Peggy Lee sophistication”.

The deliberately retro styling of the album art sets the tone – the LP looking particularly classy. Lead off track Walk (Back To Your Arms) sees Neilson open with a wailing a cappella intro before being joined by tremolo guitar and Echo chamber backing vocals – think along the lines of Tom Waits’ Jesus Gonna Be Here without the idiosyncratic vocals. Come Over keeps up the pace with another rockabilly-paced stomper.

Neilson is not all about the rockabilly beat though. Texas slows the pace and introduces steel guitar and swing fiddle into the mix. You would never guess that this was a Neilson original, co-written with producer Delaney Davidson, and not a country classic. Song after song sound like the stone cold standards that they are surely destined to become.

Tales of broken hearts and empty bottles add to the album’s timeless quality. “I don’t want a ring of gold, I don’t want to be Mrs.” Neilson sobs, “All I want is whiskey and kisses”. Only the string arrangement of Running To You gives a hint of modernity, sounding like something that kd lang or Chris Isaak might have come up with.

Dynamite! is dynamite indeed. There won’t be a better traditional country album released this year.

John Scott

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